While the 1980s could be considered a “golden age” for horror films, the following decade found the genre entering a slump; halfway through the decade, with the slasher genre was officially dead, only revived slightly by the meta film Scream, while horror as a whole was relegated to low-budget direct-to-video productions.
But even in this low ebb, there were many fine horror films being produced, with horror veteran directors creating some of their most unique work during this decade. Clive Barker, Wes Craven, and Dario Argento created some of their most original films during this time, and there was still fertile ground to be found for new experiments in this much-tread genre.
For your entertainment and edification, here are 10 totally awesome horror movies from the 1990s that you may have missed the first time around or might even be new to you.
1. A Cat In The Brain (1990)
If Fellini’s 8½ were a horror film, it would be A Cat In The Brain. A horror director (Lucio Fulci, the giallo director who plays himself here) is having trouble distinguishing reality from the work of own films. Worse, he suspects that he’s committing murders that he can scarcely remember.
But it’s actually his psychiatrist, who’s studying Fulci’s work for clues of his mental distress, who has placed that fear into his patient’s mind by hypnotizing the director into believing he’s gone on a killing spree–when actually it’s the psychiatrist murdering at night. As Fulci continues to suffer visceral flashbacks from his own work, the psychiatrist uses the director’s apparent madness as a cover to continue his violent past time.
As much a primer on Fulci’s work as a unique horror film, A Cat In The Brain incorporates numerous graphic scenes from Fulci’s long career producing gory giallo films. For those familiar with Fulci’s work, it’s an interesting peek into the director’s own perception of his work and a satire of how audiences view the director himself.
Of course, it goes without saying that this is an unbelievably gory film, filled with graphic depictions of bloody, brutal murder and even a Nazi orgy because why not? For fans of the giallo subgenre and horror fans looking for something more meta than the genre normally produces, A Cat In The Brain is a weird take on a horror master’s life’s work made by the man himself.
2. Nightbreed (1990)
Beneath a graveyard lies the city of Midian, where monsters are accepted and live without fear of persecution. A young man named Boone–who has been convinced by his psychotherapist (played by director David Cronenberg to creepy perfection) that he’s a murderer–comes across this city one night after escaping from a hospital, and after being bitten by one of its inhabitants is then shot by the police.
Boone returns to life in the morgue and enters the underground city of Midian, which is filled with grotesque humanoids. He is initiated into their society while his girlfriend goes looking for him, and his psychotherapist also learns of the secret city inhabited by monsters. A battle is then waged between the humans and the Nightbreed, as the inhabitants of Midian call themselves.
While it first opened to poor reviews, Nightbreed’s stock has risen considerably in the intervening years, particularly when the director’s cut was released in 2014 (known as The Cabal Cut). Adapted by master of horror Clive Barker from his novella Cabal,
Nightbreed is a holistic concept where Barker built the horror mythology of the world from the ground up, creating a new category of monsters that live in their own separate society. Underseen due to its initial negative reviews, upon historical revision Nightbeed is seen as a solid entry from Barker that features dynamic humanoid-monster creations and excellent creature effects.
3. Frankenhooker (1990)
After his fiancee is chopped to bits due to a lawnmower accident, med school dropout Jeffrey decides to put her back together using pieces of prostitutes that he brings back to his home. How does he kill them, you might be asking? By having them smoke exploding crack, of course! As you may be able to tell from this brief synopsis, Frankenhooker belongs to the comedy-horror category, and it’s as silly as it is gory.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of Frankenhooker makes for both a funny and grisly horror film. For example, Jeffrey has a “date” with his fiancee’s decapitated head, which is gross, but it’s also undeniably humorous when he pours some wine into her mouth, only to have it dribble all over the table because she’s just a head. When Jeffrey finally reanimates his fiancee using the parts of prostitutes he’s cobbled together, she goes back to the red light district to continue plying her body parts’ trade.
Sleeping with her, however, results in the customer exploding. For some reason. Making sense isn’t high on Frankenhooker’s list of priorities, but making an entertaining horror film certainly is. For an off-center Frankenstein story with loads of humor, this cult classic delivers both gross practical effects and a gag a minute.
4. The People Under The Stairs (1991)
Facing eviction, a group of residents of a Los Angeles ghetto, including a teenage boy, break into their landlord’s house hoping to find something valuable to pay their rent money. Instead, they become trapped in this house of horrors, coming across a stack of dead bodies, cannibal children, and the warped adults whose disturbing home reflects their own twisted preoclivities.
As our protagonist, a 13-year-old kid called Fool, navigates his way through the labyrinth-like lair of these demented landlords, he comes across one disturbing revelation after another.
This original horror film has many things going for it that are rarely seen in horror films: African-American protagonists, commentary on culture and class differences, and that the the most horrifying “monsters” are abusive, amoral people. Written and directed by horror master Wes Craven, it is perhaps his strangest film.
Filled with haunting imagery of a domestic setting seemingly built out of nightmares and surprisingly intelligent social commentary, Craven set out to make an exploitation picture with a satirical bite. With this in mind, The People Under The Stairs is a great success–and an underrated horror film.
5. The Resurrected (1991)
H.P. Lovecraft’s work is always an attractive prospect for horror filmmakers and has inspired a great deal of classic horror films, including Alien and The Thing. But more often than not, trying to directly adapt his work falls into development hell for one reason or another.
When adaptations are brought to fruition, they tend to only take elements of Lovecraft’s work instead of being pure adaptations. However, Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter of Alien, set out to make a horror film faithful to Lovecraft’s original work and adapted the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward into the 1991 film The Resurrected.
Told in flashback, a private investigator is hired by the wife of scientist Charles Ward, whose investigations into one of his ancestors has led him to performing occult experiments, and now he has disappeared completely from her life.
The PI tracks down Ward and his assistant, who both act distinctively strange upon meeting him, and when the investigator looks further into the experiments he finds that Ward is attempting to resurrect his ancestor–who had claimed he can summon demons from the stars–in the catacombs of his farmhouse through disturbing means.
This faithful Lovecraft adaptation relies more on developing a suspenseful atmosphere and building a sense of dread rather than gore and guts. Although there are bizarre creatures and disgustings practical effects, the real terror in this film comes through the tone that O’Bannon maintains throughout the film.
For Lovecraft fans, The Resurrected is a sincere adaptation of the cosmic horror master’s work, while horror fans who appreciate a dark story and inventive direction will find their faith in the genre resurrected in this film.